The Absent Parent

What is it about this style of parenting that impacts individuals well into their adulthood?


Photo credit: Esi Grünhagen from Pixabay

Udbhavi Balakrishna

Parental absence can occur due to distance, divorce or death, all of which may be unavoidable circumstances, something a child has no influence over. However, contrary to what the term may suggest, absent parenting does not mean physical absence; it is understood as a parent’s emotional unavailability, lack of active involvement and responsiveness to the child’s needs. In today’s highly stressful environments, it is crucial to recognise the subtle signs of uninvolved parenting - that parents may not even be aware they are practising - and how that can affect a child’s lifelong development.

In the 1960s, Diana Baumrind, a clinical psychologist studied and drew up three commonly observed parenting styles: authoritarian, authoritative, and permissive parenting. Uninvolved parenting was a term established by researchers relatively recently. According to Darling N. (1999), "Uninvolved parents are low in both responsiveness and demandingness. In extreme cases, this parenting style might encompass both rejecting-neglecting and neglectful parents, although most parents of this type fall within the normal range."

Uninvolved or absent parents tend to be caught up with their own problems, have little to no emotional involvement with their kids and do not respond well to their children’s needs. They do not show interest in their child’s activities and provide little guidance, support or love. They do not have demands and rarely set rules and expectations for behaviour. As a result, their children learn to fend and take decisions for themselves. Parents may provide for basic needs like food and shelter, or in worst-case scenarios, completely neglect their children. For the most part, however, they remain uninvolved in their children's lives.

Research associates healthy child outcomes to parenting styles. Children of uninvolved parents generally perform poorly with regards to social skills and academic performance, displaying some deficits in cognition, attachment and emotional skills due to the lack of emotional responsiveness from their parents. Delinquency can also be seen in such children due to a lack of boundaries at home, making it difficult for them to learn appropriate behaviour.

Hchokr at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

According to Urie Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory, how an individual’s immediate surroundings - which includes one’s family - interacts with the child, influences the bonds the child creates with other individuals throughout life. A 2013 study published in the journal Child Development noted how conflict homes lead to children’s poor cognitive development. Another study published in 2014 by the Institute for Family Studies indicated that such children were more likely to have "poor interpersonal skills, problem solving abilities and social competence." Children brought up in highly conflicted homes face higher risks of feeling neglected and are more likely to have low self-esteem as stressed-out parents tend to spend lesser time with their children and are unable to cater to their needs.

One of the reasons why ‘present but absent’ parenting poses a growing concern is because of how this is almost considered normal. One example is how fathers are portrayed in some media in a stereotypical manner - incompetent, aloof and emotionally disconnected as parents. This influences how we see fathers and their role in bringing up children, so much so, we almost expect fathers to be emotionally unavailable, not realising that this leads to attachment and esteem issues in the child in the future.

It is easy to place blame on fathers and their inactive involvement in the affairs of their children. However, a primary caretaker or mother's lack of emotional involvement can also occur, which many fail to understand. Considering how mothers are the first emotional bonds that children create, it is no surprise that their emotional withdrawal impacts more than the fathers’ lack of involvement, causing abandonment issues that surface throughout the developmental period.

Another cause for concern is how uninvolved parenting is less evident, with the effects not even being known to the children experiencing them. Since parents are physically “present” around their children and provide for basic needs, it is easy to overlook their actual involvement in their child’s upbringing. This makes it harder for one to seek or offer help to someone growing up with emotionally distant parents. An important point is that mere physical presence cannot and does not compensate for emotional involvement and lesser physical presence does not necessarily translate to lesser emotional involvement.

Despite how negative this parenting style seems, it is crucial to understand that this is not a conscious decision. Often, such parents may have themselves been raised by uninvolved and dismissive parents and may have inadvertently begun treating their children in the same manner, simply because they do not know otherwise. In some cases, because they may be caught up in their own problems - which could include poverty, mental health issues, substance abuse, being overworked, etc. - they may be unable to notice their lack of involvement with their children’s needs, rendering them unable to provide emotional support to their children.

It is thus, of paramount importance to normalise conversations about parenting and making therapy more accessible and affordable for adults.

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